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In positive psychology, several types of research methods make studying well-being a legitimate endeavor.
Some positive psychology experiments measure well-being, while others introduce variables that change a participants’ levels of well-being.
These two general types of experiments offer several research factors, which this article unpacks.
It is important to understand the concepts of dependent variables, qualitative measures, quantitative measures, observational investigations, experiments, and surveys, in this psychological research.
One way to examine a field’s experiments is to understand the dependent variables involved. You can learn a lot about what a field is interested in by seeing what it is measuring. Dependent variables are what is being studied, while the independent variable is what is controlled or changed in an experiment.
Positive psychology is very interested in well-being as a dependent variable.
As one example, one study investigated the effect of finances on well-being, by comparing current and past household incomes, employment status, education levels, and health status (Ravallion & Lokshin, 1999). All of these factors were deemed significant impacts on a person’s overall well-being; they were also all found to be intertwined.
It is of note that this study was observational in nature rather than experimental. That is, the researchers did not attempt to influence their participants’ lives to modulate well-being; they looked at all quantitative measures participants currently possess.
Qualitative and Quantitative Measures
White et al. (2012) argue that quantitative measures should not be the only measures used in the study of well-being: qualitative measures need to be included.
This means that objective measures of well-being can be approached in different ways, depending on the community of a respondent. For example, some might consider the presence of pleasure more heavily than the absence of pain, when rating their own happiness; other cultures and communities might do the opposite.
Different conceptions of happiness might lead participants to measure their well-being differently, even if asked the same precise questions. This could be solved by asking participants qualitative questions about how they consider happiness to complement the quantitative questions.
Both types of measures are crucial when studying well-being, even when ultimately concerned with more quantitative measures. Thus, the inclusion of qualitative measures will strengthen the findings of the quantitative measures.
Observational and Experimental Investigations
Going back a bit, there is a major difference between observational investigations in psychology and experimental investigations.
For example, a study might be interested in investigating well-being in certain populations without seeking to affect it with independent variables (O’Hare, 2016). On the other hand, a study in positive psychology could change participants’ levels of well-being (Sundar et al., 2016).
These two types of studies may look different in the research stage, with observational studies generally allowing for the study of larger populations, while experiments are usually limited to a smaller population.
Some positive psychology interventions combine observational and experimental practices by reviewing experimental papers (Wasson et al., 2016). For example, Wasson et al. conducted an observational study which reviewed different types of experimental approaches to investigate the effectiveness of these different approaches.
Neither observational nor experimental approaches are necessarily better than each other.
Understanding a phenomenon is just as important as trying to change it.
In the O’Hare paper, for example, researchers investigating the well-being of children needed to dig deeper first, before exposing differences between the well-being of white children and children of color.
Lastly, observational studies based in naturalistic settings can also benefit from a later experimental study in a laboratory setting, which could help guide future experimental investigations.
While positive psychology investigations can be observational and naturalistic studies, as well as experiments based in laboratories, many positive psychology investigations have a different research method where they survey their participants.
Asking people to rate their own well-being has its limitations, but has the benefits of being easy to conduct and collect data in a timely manner, which is a key part of the research.
A Take-Home Message
Positive psychology employs several different types of research methods. One of the main distinctions between studies is whether researchers are seeking to understand something, or whether they are looking to affect it.
Since there are many different ways to study positive psychology, it has strong potential to grow as a field of study.
Which of these research methods do you find most scientific grounding? We would love to hear any of your thoughts in our comments section below.
- O’Hare, W.P., 2016. Consistencies and Differences Across States in the Well-Being of Non-Hispanic White, Hispanic and Non-Hispanic Black Children in the United States. Child Indicators Research, 9(4), 1117-1137. doi:10.1007/s12187-015-9355-x
- Ravallion, M., Lokshin, M. (1999) Subjective economic welfare. Policy Research Working Papers. doi:10.1596/1813-9450-2106
- Sundar, S., Qureshi, A., Galiatsatos, P., 2016. A Positive Psychology Intervention in a Hindu Community: The Pilot Study of the Hero Lab Curriculum. Journal of Religion & Health, 55(6), 2189-2198. doi:10.1007/s10943-016-0289-5
- Wasson, L.T., Cusmano, A., Meli, L., Louh, I., Falzon, L,. Hampsey, M., Young, G., Shaffer, J., Davidson, K.W., 2016. Association Between Learning Environment Interventions and Medical Student Well-being. Journal of the American Medical Association, 316(21), 2237-2252. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.17573
- White, S.C., Gaines, Jr., S.O., Jha, S. (2012) Beyond Subjective Well-Being: A Critical Review of the Stiglitz Report Approach to Subjective Perspectives on Quality of Life. Journal of International Development, 24(6), 763-776. doi:10.1002/jid.2866